Cover Story

From Toothbrushes to Tourniquets

Photo: Dave Sanders/New York Times/Redux


Never in their “wildest dreams” did Shelley and Ariel Serber expect their living room to be converted into a distribution center for the IDF.

Since the start of the Iron Swords War, the Serbers’ home in West Hempstead, New York—now referred to as the “machal or war room” among the team of Israelis Ariel assembled—has been bustling with neighbors, friends and men and women from communities nearby donating, organizing and packing supplies for the IDF. The floor of their living room is covered with piles of duffel bags and supplies: hundreds of men’s socks and packages of black T-shirts piled high on the couch, bath towels stuffed in bins, paper bags filled with batteries and chargers, boxes of wipes, dozens of snack bags and on and on.

Two weeks into the war, the family of three has facilitated the donation and delivery of some 250 duffel bags carrying tens of thousands of pounds of supplies. But the operation was born on a much smaller scale: a trip to Costco.

“On the Monday after Simchat Torah, Shelley and I felt helpless, upset, emotional,” says Ariel, a financial advisor who works with Israeli startups. “I reached out to friends in the Israeli tech and venture capital industries to see how we could support them.” Ariel’s friend, a reservist flying back to Israel later that day, requested a ride to Costco to buy supplies for his unit. Ariel mentioned to Shelley what his friend was doing, and she hit the ground running. “What does he need? For how many people? He doesn’t need to buy this for his unit himself. I can raise the money. How many duffel bags?” Ariel recalls Shelley telling him. “It just truly exploded in the best possible way from there,” says Shelley.

On that first day, Shelley and Ariel began posting on Facebook and WhatsApp groups, requesting items ranging from protein bars to socks. “Word [got] out quickly”; supplies began streaming in from Jews residing in neighboring communities, including Oceanside, Roslyn and the Hamptons, as well as Manhattan and West Orange, New Jersey.

Tani Feldman, a seventeen-year-old from West Hempstead, New York, gave his camp duffel bag to the Serbers’ community-wide effort to ship supplies to the IDF. The next day on a base in Israel, a chayal, noticing a phone number on the bag, sent Feldman a text thanking him and the community for their efforts. The text was received at 6:13 pm. Courtesy of Shelley Serber

That first Monday night, Shelley pulled into JFK Airport with a car packed with twelve duffel bags of supplies. As she walked into the terminal, Shelley said she found “chayalim sitting on the floor of the terminal waiting for their flights. She said, ‘Hey guys, I need some help.’ And they jumped up. There were probably five or six of them. They just pulled everything out of the car.”

The young men, wearing sweatshirts and jeans, were Israelis traveling in America who had been called back to the army. One of the men had arrived in the US three days prior, only to turn right back around. “They were saying, ‘What is this stuff? Where is it from?’ I told them, ‘Everything has been donated,’” says Shelley. “The duffel bags are the community kids’ camp duffel bags that their parents pulled out of their basements and attics. The chayalim were completely blown away . . . They looked at me and asked, ‘Can we take it?’ I said, ‘Can you take it? It’s for you!’”

The chayalim, who would be traveling “directly from Ben Gurion to the front lines” opened the bags and “handpicked what they wanted for themselves and their units.” They returned to their bases equipped with the bags of supplies. “I worry about them,” says Shelley, “and my heart skips a beat when I see an ‘in memory of’ post.”

Since then, Shelley and Ariel have created an efficient system and established distinct roles for themselves. Shelley acts as the community liaison, collecting and organizing supplies. Knowledge of the Serbers’ initiative has spread to communities across Long Island, and Jews from neighboring towns consistently come in and out of their home with donations. Several of their friends and neighbors have offered their garages to store duffel bags or supplies.

Ariel is tasked with ensuring the constant inflow of supplies gets to the right place. A few hours before a flight, he is informed which supplies are needed on each flight. A group of volunteer drivers from the community take duffel bags from one garage, fill them with supplies stored in another garage and deliver them to the airport. “The supplies are all organized in different crates so the packers can take what they need from the crates and fill the bags,” says Ariel. “Once it gets to Israel, we have people there who go back and forth between the airport and the various units.” Ariel works with El Al Airlines and his Israeli contacts to ensure that the items are getting to the bases.

There has been incredible support for the Serbers; the entire community has come together to help the chayalim and in the process, are making sure the Serbers have what they need. “We’ve had people beg to come and help,” says Shelley. One family is on garbage duty; they come to the Serbers’ house every few days to flatten and dispose of all the empty cardboard boxes that once contained supplies. “I have a friend who messages me at four or five o’clock every day to make sure we have some sort of plan for dinner,” says Shelley.

While the idea for the operation began small, “we’ve gone from toothbrushes and toothpaste to life-saving equipment,” says Shelley. As of this writing in late October, the Serbers have facilitated the shipment of 6,500 tourniquets, worth tens of thousands of dollars.

“I admit we are exhausted to the bone,” says Shelley. “We haven’t slept much. But when we get the photos of chayalim holding the items that were on our living room floor two days earlier, it feels incredible. We have a saying: ‘can’t stop, won’t stop . . . We just keep pushing.’”


Batsheva Moskowitz is an associate editor at Jewish Action.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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